This article originally appears in The American Thinker
It’s been called “undemocratic,” “a relic,” and worse. Every 50 years or so, a movement gets underway to eviscerate or eliminate it — one of the creakiest compromises that emerged from our Constitutional Convention in 1788.
I refer to the Electoral College — that inelegant, less than perfect, but ultimately useful device by which we ultimately elect our presidents. Over the years, more than 30 Constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress to gut the college or eliminate it entirely. None have ever passed the legislature and sent to the states for ratification.
A few states have taken it upon themselves to circumvent the Electoral College by joining what has come to be known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact where no matter the vote for president in their own states, they will apportion electoral votes based on the national popular vote totals. Massachusetts is the latest state to join this Compact, but it is unclear whether it would actually pass Constitutional muster if challenged.
Arguments in favor of the Compact are compelling. Isn’t it always better to have the people choose the president directly? In a nation as much in love with liberty as the United States, such an argument resonates powerfully. Other arguments are equally worthy; such a compact would prevent chaos in very close elections; it would take the focus of elections off the large swing states and thus empower smaller states; and the compact may open the door to more serious third party challenges, thus broadening participation.
But there are two powerful reasons for maintaining the current system. First, as conservatives, we favor tradition - especially when it can’t be proved that changing the rules would make the system better. For every argument in favor of giving the Electoral College the deep six, there are counter-arguments which reveal unintended consequences that would arise if we were to abandon the college and consign its wisdom to the dustbin of history.
The original intent of the College was to keep the decision for president entirely out of the hands of citizens and place it in the hands of “wise men” who would presumably act in the national interest in choosing a president rather than base the choice on the selfish interests of the rabble. The Electoral College was amended in 1804 to reflect the emergence of political parties, and states mostly settled on a “winner take all” formula for choosing electors.
This boosted the influence of states in national elections by forcing candidates to run campaigns that reflected the federal nature of our republic. The early divisions of big state vs. small state in the country were augmented by urban vs. rural, west vs. east, north vs. south, and agriculture vs. manufacturing divisions to which a candidate for president had to address if he were to be successful.
The magic formula to reach a majority of the electoral college votes, therefore, was a test of the broadest possible appeal of a candidate. It guaranteed that no region, no interest would be slighted by a candidate who did so at the risk of alienating key groups and losing precious Electoral College votes in the process. Rural voters from north and south, urban voters from the coast and the interior, were lumped together and specific appeals were tailored to win them over.
The other major reason to maintain the Electoral College is that it confirms the federal nature of the United States government. It is not surprising that the impetus for the Compact is coming from heavily Democratic states. Direct election of a president would place a premium on wholesale politics. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama took 9 of the 10 largest states, running up huge majorities in the popular vote in states like California, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and Michigan. In a race decided by the popular vote, the Republican would be at a distinct disadvantage in that he would be forced to run a defensive campaign, trying to cut into the Democrats huge advantage in coastal and heavily urbanized areas while defending turf in far less populous regions. The disparity would mean that the Republican would spend far more per vote than the Democrat.
And there is something to be said for the charm of presidential campaigns as they are currently run. True, swing states like Ohio and Florida get an inordinate amount of attention from candidates. But would smaller states receive more stroking from candidates if we were to switch to a popular vote model? I can’t imagine it. In a close election like 2004, John Kerry and George Bush criss-crossed the country in those final days, hitting smaller states like New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, and Washington, in addition to the larger markets, fighting for each and every electoral vote. I doubt very much whether that scenario would play out in a direct election scenario as it would be more efficient and prudent to appear in states with the largest TV markets to maximize the effort to win as many votes as possible.
The argument for or against the Electoral College is a close one. But in the end, bowing to the wisdom of the Founders has rarely steered us wrong through the centuries. In this, as in most things, their prescience in doing what was best for succeeding generations of Americans has been born out with great success.